In a recent article in Slate, “Against Enthusiasm: The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture,” Jason Silverman opines that social media have blunted the integrity of book reviewers in newspapers and magazines.
If you’re not quite sure what social media are (I don’t even have a cell phone), Merriam-Webster says it means “forms of electronic communication (as Web sites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content.”
I assume this refers to Facebook and Twitter. I can’t figure out what they are, so I don’t have them.
Jason Silverman does know what they are, however. He says the bloggers and Tweeters are all too “nice,” and there’s now a pressure on journalists to be positive.
…if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page….
First, let me say I disagree with his accusation of “amiability.” Many bloggers are amiable, critical, and ethical. One is more likely to find serious literary criticism at blogs than in newspapers (see my blogroll): consider the blogs of Ellen Moody (which include Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, Reveries under the Sign of Austen, and Under the Sign of Austen), Thinking in Fragments, Asylum, Stuck-in-a-Book, Interpolations, A Common Reader, Tony’s Book World, etc., etc. As for myself, and I shouldn’t refer to myself if I believe what Silverman says, this is a book journal, not a review publication, and I say what I think.
Silverman believes fandom and “likes” have had “a chilling effect on literary culture,” but I believe that journalists are too arrogant to allow “nice” social media to dominate them. Silverman thinks online self-publishing is B-A-D. But journalists are no threat to literary bloggers, I assure you.
Silverman calls book reviews in newspapers and magazines “literary journalism,” which is book talk for a plot summary with a few pithy, dramatic, or eviscerating remarks.
I do agree with many things Silverman says. Newspapers often publish tepid or uncritical reviews that neglect to tell you the deficiencies or exaggerate the merits of a book. I regretted buying John Lanchester’s mediocre novel, Capital, after reading a review in The New York Times Book Review that (falsely) compared it to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. The NYTBR is necessary, because it has the most space, but I have had more success with reviews in other publications. Is Joan Acocella of The New Yorker the best reviewer? Yes.
Bookstores are helpful. Bookstores’s websites and publishers’ websites are useful. I don’t read many of the new books–four or five a month?–but often browse in bookstores.
Do “nice” people try to censor one’s “not nice” reviews in the blogosphere?
I once said something about Persephone books (or was it Virago?) that upset quite a few bloggers who every few months declared it Persephone Week (or was it Virago Week?). I spoke out against “Amazon affiliates” and got even more grief. And recently I was called a “bitch” and a “bad reader” for trashing John Irving’s In One Person.
So there is pressure to be “nice,” but I have a “nice” little trick: I delete all comments that call me a bitch, unless I forget (which happens if I’m busy).
Do I read books recommended by bloggers?
I swear by the blogs on my blogroll. I have learned about film and Mrs. Oliphant from Ellen Moody’s blogs, found out about The Complete Short Stories of Elizabeth Taylor from Dovegreyreader, and have “gotten down” with science fiction from the Tor blog (which I think I forgot to put in my sidebar).
Bloggers have different purposes. Some review books. Some review books and write about themselves. Some review books, write about themselves, and do PR. Some do only PR. I try to avoid the straight PR blogs.
Publishers occasionally use eager bloggers, and you must heed those who tell you they have received free books: book reviewers everywhere receive free books, but if they’re making a big deal of it…
On the other hand, hard-working publicists have introduced bloggers to many, many wonderful books which don’t get reviewed in newspapers and mags. I discovered a charming, light literary novel this summer, Emylia Hall’s The Book of Summers, which, as far as I can see, was not reviewed in any American newspapers. So thanks to those hard-working publicists!
Do we have social interactions with writers?
Sometimes! Some writers have stopped by in to say they have enjoyed or appreciated my blog. They include Clyde Edgerton, Cathy Marie Buchanan, and Brenda Peterson. It was very exciting. I love their work.
The downside is that you hope the writers whose books you dislike never, never find your blog.
Do newspapers and magazines have good blogs? Yes. The Guardian used to have the best book blog of all. Unfortunately, last year they changed it to a staff writers’ blog. I imagine they couldn’t afford the essays by the likes of A. L. Kennedy and other freelancers.
I can’t say anything about tweets, because I don’t get them. But, yes, many bloggers have integrity.